Monday, August 30, 2010

Hot For Teacher Testing

When I decided to leave consulting and become a teacher (note to self: in a lifetime full of errors, bevues, and regrets, this had to be one of the real keepers...) Oregon, and the nation, were in the midst of the fervor for "high-stakes testing".

Part of this was the whole Bush "No Child Left Behind" thing, but a lot of it goes back to the "A Nation At Risk" kid-brain-missile-gap hysteria and the usual need for the usual suspects to Do Something About It, or at least to be visibly seen Doing Something.In our case we had an assessment at 8th Grade, and then another in 10th, called the CIM or "Certificate of Initial Mastery". The theory was that in 12th grade the kiddos would take a CAM or "Certificate of Advanced Mastery" - what my father and mother had taken in high school in New York state in the 1940s and had been called a Regent's Exam.

The idea was the same; to use the test to certify that the kids had learned their lessons, at least the ones the state felt they needed to learn.

Well lots of schools torqued their entire curriculums around to fit this damn thing. For example, because the 10th graders had to take a History CIM the entire freshman year social science was taken up with something called "World Studies A" and "WS-B". And because the CIM started with questions about the Industrial Revolution, we started in September with the Industrial Revolution. And from there on to WW1. And from there on to the Russian Revolution. Why Russia? Who the hell knows? Especially since in 2002 teaching the Russian Revolution was like teaching buggy-whip making. The damn ramshackle Soviet ediface had just come tumbling down - who the hell cared about the Aurora and Kerensky and the Five Year Plan and Lenin.

Though my students loved the hell out of Boney M's "Rasputin":

"Rah Rah Rasputin
Lover of the Russian queen
There was a cat that really was gone
Rah Rah Rasputin
Russia's greatest love machine
It was a shame how he carried on..."


Anyway, have you ever tried to teach history to 14-year-olds? It's like teaching sudoku to a cat. You will only frustrate yourself and the cat doesn't give a shit. Not surprisingly, for most of the kids WS-A and -B were a total wash.

Except maybe for Rasputin. They liked Rasputin.

But whether the little buggers learned history or not wasn't the point. They HAD to get the history fed them in 9th grade so they'd be ready for the Big Dance in 10th. God forbid that a teacher, or a school, or a district, flushed the CIM. You might never get funded for so much as a new Habitrail for the biology classroom again...

But I always looked at it this way; if you make me take a test and my welfare depends on it, I will likely try and do well on the test, or at least as well as I can. If my paycheck, or my standing, or my future employment rests on doing well on the test, I will bust my hump to make that happen.

But if YOUR welfare depends on MY performance?


You'd better be a pretty sweet pal, or have some sort of serious threat to hold over me. Because otherwise, Giacomo?

You could kiss my ass. Why should I bust my butt for you?

So when I read that there was a study that concluded that "There is also little or no evidence for the claim that teachers will be more motivated to improve student learning if teachers are evaluated or monetarily rewarded for student test score gains.", among other things, I had to laugh. This was a surprise?

Teaching is an odd thing. There is tremendous power there. Forget the "classroom discipline", the power game between adolescent and adult that characterizes a hell of a lot of American high school classrooms. No, it's the tension in the relationship between the teacher as possessor of knowledge and the student as seeker of knowledge as old as Plato. The student has to learn as much as the teacher has to teach. The failure of one is the failure of the teacher's power is shot through with faults and weakness.

And it's not really a science and its not really an art. If anything, teaching is a sort of craft, where you learn people like a carpenter learns wood, feeling the grain of them, searching for the places where the gouge will pare away smoothly, where it will bind and crack.

So when you reduce teaching and learning into the kind of test you complete by filling in little ovals with a number 2 pencil...well...let the researchers explain it: "As we show in what follows, research and experience indicate that approaches to teacher evaluation that rely heavily on test scores can lead to narrowing and over-simplifying the curriculum...provide disincentives for teachers to take
on the neediest students (and) also create disincentives for teacher collaboration."

Or, as one of the commentors on this study said over at Crooked Timber: " seems like it would make kids, particularly difficult to teach kids, my adversaries in a sense. If they do not improve, then I get fired. It would be so hard to keep my eye on a student’s well-being in that context and not see them as little performers who hold the key to my future. If I suspect them of being unable to help being underperformers, there’s the risk I would start to resent them."



And y'know what?

I could have told you that twenty years ago, and saved a lot of money I spent on getting a teaching certificate. Because when I was an Army sergeant part of my evaluation was a graded exercise called an ARTEP. Several months before the ARTEP I would gather my squad for a friendly talk.

“We’re about to do this graded field problem” I would explain. “We will be graded as a squad but the grade will only reflect on me. The graders will not listen to my explanation of how many of you are gimps, wheezers, chronic self-abusers, morons, gomers, mouth-breathers, learning disabled products of the union between a Marine and a gorilla, the offspring being, of course, a retarded gorilla. They will not believe that the reason we fucked up were because you oxygen thieves were unable to learn. They will blame it on my being unable to teach you.

Therefore, I will carefully explain everything we will do. I will show you how to do it. I will coach you through it. You will then do it for yourselves, with my direct supervision and correction. Finally we will do it at combat speed.

After that you have my personal assurance that any subsequent failure on your part, however small, will result in your horrible lingering death, probably involving a red-hot poker and one or more of your bodily orifices, or a transfer to a posting on the Korean DMZ, whichever you fear more.”

Now I never failed an ARTEP. But this is, in effect, what high-stakes testing will do for teachers and students; make the student fuckups the teachers' problem.

Mistakes? Mistakes are good. We learn from mistakes. But fuckups? As a teacher I can deal with fuckups.But the fuckups won't like it, and neither will I.

This doesn't seem like a good way to teach, or a good way to learn.

But I have to tell you; I'm not sure if a lot of people really understand how to do these either, and that will be the subject of some of the next posts.

Oh, and just as a note?

The Oregon Department of Public Instruction never fully implemented the CAM and abandoned the CIM several years ago.

But CIM or no CIM I wonder if my students still remember Rasputin?

"Rah Rah Rasputin
Lover of the Russian queen
They put some poison into his wine
Rah Rah Rasputin
Russia's greatest love machine
He drank it all and he said "I feel fine"Oh, those Russians..!

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